When watching the cyclists at elite competitions, such as the Tour de France, it’s easy to think that their performance represents an unattainable achievement. Yet, most, if not all, of those elite athletes learned how to ride a bicycle just like you, with the help of training wheels. Educational scaffolds are often likened to the training wheels, which provide safety and support for a novice bicyclist, but are intended to be removed once the bicyclist’s skills and confidence are “road ready.”
Scaffolding in any learning context is a deliberate design element that reinforces the construction of new knowledge and skills. These elements are put in place to initially reduce the complexity of a learning task, allowing the learner to focus on acquiring and applying new concepts or skills. As the learner progresses, the scaffolds are incrementally reduced or removed until the learner is able to successfully apply the new skills in novel situations without additional support. As such, scaffolds help learners develop confidence while encouraging intrinsic motivation, the drive that originates within ourselves to work towards a goal for the joy and personal satisfaction of both the process and the accomplishment. Designers of digital learning environments, like Babbel, must consider scaffolding from the perspective of both the learning content as well as the product interface.
Scaffolding Babbel’s Learning Content
Babbel’s content development team consists of over 150 linguists, who design our 5,000+ lessons using best practices in cognition, language acquisition, and behavioral science. We organize our courses into “chunked”, theme-based units. This prevents overwhelming learners with too much new vocabulary or grammar points all at once. Each unit typically consists of two short lessons that introduce progressively more challenging content followed by a lesson that focuses on putting the new skills and vocabulary to use in multiple real-life situations.
Each unit builds upon the foundation set in prior units. We present learners with hints, tips, and personalized explanations that provide both guidance and targeted support to empower them to achieve their learning goals. For example, beginning learners can access stock phrases to help them compose texts in their new language.
Learning scaffolds also come in the form of additional contexts or uses for words and grammar constructions, for example further ways to express the future tense in German.
As learners progress along their journey, these scaffolds become less prominent, yet remain accessible if the learner needs the extra support. For example, translations that appear directly below text in the learning language throughout the beginner courses are hidden in the intermediate courses, while remaining available if the learner requires.
Though they may initially restrict or channel input from users, these scaffolds are designed to encourage independent skill use in authentic situations. Babbel’s goal is to give learners both the needed linguistic skills to speak in their new language, and the confidence to try. If learners are able to, for example, chat with a local on a bus while on vacation, these supports have served their purpose.
Design Elements that Support Learning
At the user experience (UX) and visual design levels, Babbel also employs scaffolds to facilitate learning and drive confidence. We know that our millions of learners come from all over the world and bring with them different levels of familiarity with digital environments. While the learning content scaffolds previously discussed seek to reduce the complexity of skill and vocabulary acquisition, our design scaffolds are intended to make navigation within Babbel more intuitive and let the learner simply focus on learning.
Babbel recently added a placement test in the form of a series of “can-do” statements with a range selector. The combined answers are analysed by a course selection engine that recommends the optimal starting point based on the learner’s prior knowledge and specific learning needs. Thus, our learners can start learning at the right level, right from the start, without having to search through long lists of courses to find the one best suited to their individual level and interests.
Reminders are an extremely valuable design scaffold. Learning anything requires some measure of discipline and regular practice. In today’s busy world, with so much competition for our attention, forming a healthy habit of learning is the key to language acquisition. We recognize that building that new learning habit can be a challenge (and that misplaced, poorly designed, or ill-timed reminders can be annoying), so we added a bit of fun to the process with colorful illustrations and lighthearted motivational language. These reminders are customized by the learner and are intended to be used as a tool for forming or maintaining a learning habit. The reminders are successful once a learner no longer requires them to regularly engage with the app.
A new language requires some nurturing. This is why our “magical plant” icons make the perfect progress visualization on the course overview page. For courses that are underway, we’ve added a circular progress indicator to signal to learners how they are progressing and, as they advance through their course, the plant icons grows and blossoms as well.
The best way to ensure that you’ll get to where you want to go is to track your activity. This was the thought behind our new Learning Activity visualization. This new design scaffold provides learners with a snapshot of their learning activity, offering a subtle reminder that good learning habits will get them speaking their new language while also reinforcing their personal motivations for learning that language. In the coming months, learners will see an expanded achievement visualization that will let them track learning more concretely, will connect learning with specific conversational skills that they can try out in the real world, and will provide milestone celebrations.
Ways to Review
Babbel has recently redesigned Review, the feature that presents learners with items that they saw previously, using spaced repetition to make sure that learners review the right content at the optimal time for memory retention. We’ve added a Speaking Trainer to the set of possible review interfaces. Speaking is one of the most powerful methods of reinforcing new learning while simultaneously encouraging confidence. Learners can now practice pronunciation as they review vocabulary and grammar constructions. Coming soon: all Babbel learners will have a fourth option for review on-the-goal, listening!